Meg emails to ask me “How much work is small-scale farming, anyway?” I want to farm and I’m planning on trying it out over the summer as an intern, but what I’m worried about is not being able to keep up with everyone else. I’m healthy and reasonably energetic, but everyone makes it sound so hard! Should I even try?”
Well first of all, I think Meg is doing exactly the right thing in trying it out. The best way to understand whether you are suited to small-scale agriculture is to get some experience, idealy on several different small farms that do the kinds of things you want to do. Interning, WWOOFing, taking hands-on classes are good ways to get a sense of the scope of things.
The reason I would advise several farms is that the workload is quite variable based on what crops you raise, and also on your personality. Different approaches have different rush periods and different quite periods, and different people do things differently. Trying several farmers and several kinds of farming will help you get a sense of what is needed.
For example, livestock raising requires more day-to-day attention – you can’t go away for the weekend without finding someone to handle your chores, and realistically, it can be hard to find that someone. On the other hand, raising livestock can provide, in my experience, more remuneration with less effort than raising produce. In fact, our family does both, but it is helpful that given the right fence, livestock will harvest their own food – green beans just sit there until you pick them ;-).
Other factors matter too – do you live in or on the edge of an urban or suburban area? You may be managing a much smaller area with a greater profit margin due to the proximity of customers, but you’ll also have more pressure on your fences and on issues of appearance – you’ll need to keep up with things that those of us in rural areas can let go. If you live in the country, you have more freedom often to do things as you like, but it can be harder to make money.
What’s your personality? Do you see a leaning post and think “I’ve got to get out there today and fix that”, or do you think “That’ll hold another week or two.” Those who have to keep everything in fine repair and keep up with everything will do more work in some says, but will have the excitement of fewer sudden catastrophic systems failures, and spend less time looking for things in the general clutter, usually.
What tools do you want to use? How big or small do you want to go? What can you afford, and what scale are you imagining working on. A small urban farmer selling microgreens from a few beds and someone harvesting 12 acres of grapes will require very different tools – or, if operating with the same tools, will have very different workloads.
Also, is the workload even throughout the year? It rarely is in agriculture – if you milk cows, you’ll be doing much the same work every day of the year in some measure (not all), but if you sell Christmas trees and wreaths and raise pastured poultry, you’ll be operating on a very different schedule, with heavy workloads some parts of the year and comparative quiet in others. My own take on this is to aim for farm business products that spread out over the year, with a quiet period in early winter for rest.
How much labor can you count on from others? Family, friends, other interested parties? Sometimes volunteer labor can be deeply helpful, in other cases, it can be more work than not. The help of your 17 year old daughter maybe invaluable, or it might be not worth the effort if she mostly spends her time whining and eye rolling. Who will help, and how and how engaged are they?
How much energy are you willing to devote to working “smart” rather than hard? When we first started our CSA, I was in my late 20s and cheerfully willing to bust my behind all day long to get tomatoes from our rocky, cold soils – and it didn’t bother me that my CSA customers had been getting them from other farms for 2 weeks, because of our cold location. Over time, however, I realized that what I wanted was not to muscle my way through, but to adapt my farming to be more natural and less demanding – and the goats and herbs and vegetable seedlings I now sell are less work and more pleasure.
From my own experience, I find that farming is a lot of work – but much of it is so enjoyable that it doesn’t feel that way once you adapt to it. I look forward to large chunks of the year’s labors – and that’s probably the most important factor in feeling like you aren’t overwhelmed. That doesn’t mean a goat kid never comes on a day when I’d rather be doing something else, or I don’t have to spend a hot afternoon in the garden when I’d rather sit in the shade – of course, that’s part of it. But overwhelmingly, if you enjoy what you do, working hard is not onerous – it is enjoyable.
I do not wish to pretend that sometimes it is very hard, as when a physically demanding job has to be done late in the night or in terrible weather. Sometimes awful things happen – we lost a seemingly healthy kid recently for no apparent reason, and that’s the sort of disheartening thing that makes you want to give up. Sometimes it is frustrating, as when a run of problems hits, or when you realize you’ve been doing something the dumb way. There are plenty of moments when farming is very hard – much of it, however, is the same psychological hardness that comes from a disheartening period in any project, rather than sheer physical hardness.
It can be physically demanding and exhausting – but consider the fact that the average small farmer in the US is over 60 – it cannot be something that depends solely on physical strength. In the end, yes, there is physical work, but it is often possible to grow into that work, or to adapt that work to the strength and ability of your body.
What I love about it, what makes the endless work seem so tolerable is that it is always different – today I will spend my day making sure the does in heat get bred, a humorous and enjoyable project I always look forward to. A friend of mine visiting a few weeks ago commented “It looks like a frat-house here” – and frankly, breeding season provides a lot of amusement. We joke that we are spending our days watching “CNN” or “The Caprine Nookie Network.” Besides routine chores and the spreading of manure on some of the last garden beds, there’s not too much to do. This is the quiet season – we turn to domestic maintenence, to the spring cleaning that I never really do because by spring I’m busy starting seeds and taking cuttings. I’m enjoying seeing what is buried in the back closets (mostly, a few horrors have been found), and when I get tired, there’s wood to carry, trees to prune and goats to rotate around.
By January I’ll be sick of the quiet and longing to get my hands into some soil – I love to start seeds and nurture them along. in February the trays will be full and the plants will be poking up, the winter-stratified nursery beds covered with snow but gestating. We’ll breed our second group of goats then for year round milk, and dream of the summer’s kids. January and February will involve some cold days in the woods as well, cutting firewood from the downed trees of last year’s hurricane – work I truly enjoy.
In March we’ll tap our few maple trees and make syrup, and every windowsill and corner will be filled with plants. The delight of getting my fingers into the potting soil will have faded a bit, but still, every seedling is a hope of spring. We’ll have chicks in the brooder and the hens will be laying like mad, and hopefully, we’ll have cleaned out the winter barn, a project that takes several concerted days. We’ll be managing the last of the stored winter produce as well, preserving what goes mealy or soft, cleaning out and getting ready for the new to come.
By April we’ll be in the garden – we hope. Some years things start early, other years they run late. I’ll be selling seedlings and spring plants and forcing bulbs. The first herbs will be up and ready for tending, and the fruiting bushes will need attention. The kids will begin coming in April, and our nights will be interrupted for a bit, but the joy of new babies compensates. April can be a mad rush with kidding and planting – but some years it is so cold and wet that we mostly chafe and whine and rotate too many seedlings around one more time, waiting for spring.
In May it all rushes upon us and for eight to ten weeks, we push from dawn to dusk, racing outside at first light and working our bodies as long as we can. We fall into bed exhausted from planting and tending, the first early harvests, and all the rest. The first crop of hay comes in, fences must be moved regularly, everything is busting out all over, including us. It is tiring but glorious, and every day the world is more beautiful and we feel luckier to be part of it.
June too is part of the rush and race, some years more, some years less, depending on when spring decided to come to the northeast. Add to all the sowing and planting and transplanting and sales the fact that in June comes the first harvest and first preservation of herbs and berries (we have harvested morels, rhubarb and raspberry leaves already, but these hardly count).
In July things slow a little, except for the endless weeding and mowing, and the thrust of preservation. We do not put up our own hay (most of my neighbors sell hay), so July is a quieter month for us than for many here. There’s enough of a lull to even go away for a couple of days at the beginning of the month. Then comes the second round of babies and the fall garden rush which is always chancy – will hot dry days wither seedlings meant to feed us in winter? Still, there’s plenty of preserving to do – cucumbers, blueberries, peaches, etc…
August is the peak preserving month for us most years, and the rush to get everything done that should have been in past months before our fall responsibilities start, since farming is not our only work. By August we are done with summer, sick of planting, tired of the green beans that keep producing, and the challenge is not to give up to th weeds or to be sick of the corn on the third go-round. Summer has lost a little of its luster now, and fall is eagerly anticipated. By August much of the herb harvest is done except for the root crops, and must be preserved and put away. The goat babies are headed to new homes, and it is never wise to underestimate how much time customers will take up.
September is a new day – the planting is over, the harvesting goes on with new intensity. It is time to get ready for winter and it is hard not to think about how much hay and firewood and squash you will need. September is a time for lists of things to do – and for us, for celebrations as the Jewish holidays come in autumn.
By October most years it is cool enough to fill the root cellar and we are rushing to get everything preserved and under cover before winter comes (not this year, with the weird warm temps). It is time to do the last butchering cycle for the poultry and sell the last goats and cull rabbits so that the barns aren’t too crowded. Stacking firewood and loading in hay are big projects as well.
November is when we catch up, make gifts, begin breeding goats and managing stud service for others, moving fences for the last time and winterizing the barn. We always hope to get one more barn cleaning done in December before everything freezes and too much snow hits to allow us to get the wheelbarrows in and out. Everything must be winterized and the garden clean up, garlic planting and bulb planting drag us out on the last nice days.
December is time to face the house and ask “ok, what didn’t I do all last year.” In December and January we reorganize, paint and clean out, give away and get ready for the quiet.
There is of course, a permanent cycle – the daily chores, the daily maintenence of a home, the daily care of children, and this is something you can in some measure choose. A few chickens won’t much inconvenience anyone, and only houseplants is easier still. In our case we have chosen a life that requires much daily attention – many children, many animals, and we find it delightful for the most part.
In the end, the workload depends in large measure on how you see it – I can understand how someone might view a day in the woods in winter with a crosscut saw, or a night in the barn in summer covered with goat placenta as a day of hard labor. To me, the saw and the birds and the sounds and the sights of the bony bare trees are pleasures. It feels good to move after a December of too many latkes and too much sitting before a fire. Is it work? I can’t say when I’m having so much fun.
I can see how someone might find the mess and fuss of a night time kidding to be a disruption. To me, watching and waiting and seeing what will be born, tending my does in this time of birth, being ready to help if needed, even though I rarely am is a gift. When twins slip into the world, silvery, new and struggle up to nurse against a mother who washes them clean, I don’t mind the state of my sweatshirt or the loss of sleep – instead, I feel fortunate that I’ve chosen this life and these joys. It is not work I think of in those nights, but pleasure.
The gift of it – the day to day things to do, the cyclical ones is that they come around again and i have a chance to stick my fingers in the ground and feel the cool earth warming, or that I stand on my porch with a load of laundry watching the pheobes build their nest on my porch and smelling springtime in the air, watching a small child carry a newborn chick, the swing of the scythe through grass, that I take eggs and milk, chard and homemade goat cheese and bring forth quiche, that my morning begins with a warm goat and a stream of milk hitting a metal bucket, the cutting of basil, the harvesting of tomatoes, even the sometimes endless pureeing and canning…. Most of the time the work and the joy are indistinguishable and it is hard and good – and the good is what matters.